No matter what they wear, male or female, you’re always looking at their bodies, aren’t you? Always. The Olympics are about the body ideal, and there are so many different versions of bodies, from Caeleb Dressel with those plates in his chest, to Simone Biles with her ability to look like a leaf floating to the ground, all of them with such implausibly compelling ranges of motion. So where is the dividing line between athletic glorification and sexualization?
And why is the line for women so often set by aging male functionaries who seem to have an eye for smirking voyeurism?
When Germany’s female gymnasts chose to wear unitards instead of the traditional spangled lingerie for the team qualifying event, it registered as a subversive sensation, which tells you just how little Olympic competitors own their otherwise powerful forms. “We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear,” said three-time Olympian Elisabeth Seitz, who will compete in the uneven bars later this week.
Women are not alone in this respect in Tokyo — all Olympians’ bodies are trespassed on by authorities to an uncomfortable degree. Study the uniform regulations of any sport federation there, and you’ll come across a sentence that offends your sense of personal space. Even Kevin Durant must suffer a FIBA regulation that dictates to an uncomfortably intimate degree what he wears on the court, “including, but not limited to, on his body, his hair or otherwise.” His hair? Where do these people get off?
But there are certain sports in which the encroachment is so viscerally creepy that you get the sense of a hand moving up the thigh, and those sports invariably involve women.
The international women’s gymnastics code reads like a dictatorial cross between pageant swimsuit competition rules and that line from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” Their leotards must be “of elegant design.” Their “neckline” is circumscribed down to the shoulder blades. And then this: “The leotard leg length cannot exceed the horizontal line around the leg, delineated by no more than 2 cm below the base of the buttocks.” Yes, you read that correctly: If you are a female gymnast, the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique assumes the right to your buttocks.
But the gymnastics code is respectful compared with beach volleyball. A woman’s tank top “must fit closely to the body and the design must be with deep cutaway armholes on the back, upper chest and stomach.” If she chooses to wear a one-piece, it “must closely fit and the design must be with open back and upper chest.” If she wears a half-sleeve top, it must “fit closely” and feature a neckline with a “depth of 12 cm,” and if she wears shorts, they must be “close fitting” and 26 centimeters above the knee.
The words “fit close” or “close fitting” are repeated seven times. And finally, there is a fabric requirement. It must be clingy, so “the uniform fits tight to the body.” The men? They’re simply required to wear a tank top and shorts.
The bikini factor is so deeply baked into the beach sports that last week the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined more than $1,700 for refusing to wear bikini briefs and instead donning shorts in a European tournament. Singer-songwriter Pink’s offer to pay the fine is a nice gesture. But if we want to get rid of the “close fit and an upward angle toward the top of the leg” regulations, it’s going to require much higher aim.
The International Olympic Committee has seen this controversy brewing for some time and tried to slip out the side door. It issued a rather obnoxious set of “Portrayal Guidelines” in Tokyo to suggest how female athletes should be represented by broadcasters, including an advisory not to “focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts.” Now this is pretty rich, given that the IOC knows perfectly well the makeup of the uniform rules, and the sports federations that wrote them, and its own makeup as well.
Those bodies are all governed by men — older men, mostly. The president and two of the three executive vice presidents of the gymnastics federation are male, and so are 16 of its 23 executive committee members. In beach volleyball, nine members of the 13-person executive committee are men. And then there is the IOC itself: 66 of its 102 members are male, and 26 members were elected more than two decades ago.
What’s interesting — riveting even — is the epic dignity that female athletes such as Biles and Alix Klineman manage to bring to all of this. Against their superb athleticism and stateliness, these rules wilt like cheap paperback pornography. Somehow, they manage to avoid the sexualization trap — and it is a trap, of course. A female athlete is supposed to let the authorities take advantage of her appearance to promote and “grow” her sport, yet she can’t appear to use it. She’s told by her federation that she has to be appealing enough for the viewers to respond to her and yet try to remain in control of her own image and avoid voyeurism. She is supposed to exercise her femininity without inviting violation, be part of an entertainment package without falling victim or leaving herself open to easy disparagement. Somehow, they have done it. They have won admiration for their forms over their figures. You try it. You try managing all of those tripwires. It’s not the least of their achievements.
They are proof that the true allure of athletes has more to do with the grace and glow that comes from their full realization of the physical capabilities inside their skin than it does with sexualization. Whatever they wear, male and female alike, whether a rower’s singlet or those slithering new rock climber sheaths, you can almost feel their pride in bodies honed to peak self-discovery. A woman may well want to compete in briefs for that reason — and should be able to do so without having moral manacles clapped on her. The fascination with them lies not in the reveal but in their monumental sculptedness, the suggestion that they have understood that phrase of Michelangelo’s — that there is a statue buried in every stone.